MIAMI, Fla. -- Redemption often is difficult to achieve. The road there, should one exist, is filled with constant obstacles forced to make you question yourself and your pursuit along the way.
To seek redemption doesn’t mean there was a shameful act, just that you have strayed from your initial path due to carelessness, selfishness, arrogance or any number of flaws that befall us all.
For Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, that road ultimately has led him to Miami where his Chiefs will face the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday.
“I’m so grateful for the journey I’ve traveled, you know?” Mathieu said of his long and bumpy road to the pinnacle for his profession. “But I couldn’t do it alone. So many great people really had my best interest, so I’m grateful for that.”
The kid they once called the Honey Badger now finds himself as the linchpin on a Super Bowl defense. But it started what feels like a lifetime ago when he was a brash, flashy, playmaking defensive back who led LSU to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game where the Tigers eventually lost to Alabama.
Mathieu had a nose for the football and a sense for the big moment. He was named a Heisman finalist as a sophomore. Everything was in front of him. That path appeared set in stone, one to be strolled along while whistling in the wind.
Then, just like that, the Honey Badger lost his Tiger stripes.
Despite several second chances, Mathieu was kicked off the LSU football team for failing multiple drug tests. Mathieu stayed in school as a regular student in the hopes he could earn his way back on the team, but was arrested in October of 2012 on simple possession of marijuana charges and that was the end of his LSU act.
What happened next was the first reality check moment for a player oozing with talent and promise, who had lost his way.
“It’s so long ago,” Mathieu recounted Monday at Super Bowl Opening Night. "I remember, I got kicked out of LSU. I went to McNeese State, right? I’m sitting in that coach's office. I got a wife-beater shirt on. I’m just looking at my life and I’m like, ‘Yo, I was just in Baton Rouge and now I’m at McNeese State.’ I didn’t end up going to McNeese State but I think that was one of those points in my life where I kind of said, 'Something’s got to change. I got to turn a corner,' and I was grateful for that.”
That’s where his long, long road back begins.
Instead of going to McNeese State, Mathieu worked out by himself and entered the NFL draft the following spring.
Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft and moved him from his expected NFL position of slot corner to free safety.
Mathieu earned the starting job by Week 4, showing the Cardinals had a defensive cornerstone fall into their laps thanks to his stumbles.
But the road back wasn’t direct or quick. It never is.
Mathieu tore his left ACL and LCL while returning a punt against the then-St.Louis Rams late in his rookie season.
Then, in 2015 he tore his right ACL in the midst of an All-Pro season. Two devastating knee injuries in three seasons. He ultimately would sustain four season-altering injuries in each of his first four seasons, causing him to question whether or not football was in his future.
Despite the injuries, the Cardinals rewarded Mathieu with a five-year, $62.5 million contract. The happy marriage, however, wouldn’t last.
Mathieu was cut following the 2017 season after he refused to renegotiate his salary and take a pay cut, giving him another important moment to look back on.
“It was very humbled being cut,” Mathieu said. “I’ve been fired from a team before, but I had never really been cut. To be cut, it was a reflective moment for me. It really humbled me and it gave me an opportunity to clean my plate and start fresh, to not focus on injuries, to not focus on what happened in Arizona, to just embrace this new journey I’m on. I was grateful for my opportunity in Houston. They allowed me to be myself.”
Humbled, but never ready to stop scratching and clawing his way back, Mathieu signed a one-year, prove-it deal with the Houston Texans.
Prove it, he did, recording 89 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions while being a key piece of the Texans’ defense. But his final game in a Texans uniform won’t be on any Honey Badger highlight reels. He was in coverage on an early Andrew Luck touchdown pass and was juked out of his shoes by Marlon Mack on a 29-yard touchdown run in the Indianapolis Colts’ wild-card win that ended the Texans’ season and Mathieu’s pit stop in Houston.
Despite his star-crossed career, the Chiefs invested heavily in Mathieu last offseason, signing him to a three-year, $42 million contract to replace the leadership void left by the exodus of Eric Berry and Justin Houston, and to shore up a pass defense that was routinely shredded during the 2018 season.
It has been money well spent for the Chiefs. Mathieu earned first-team All-Pro honors at defensive back and second-team honors at safety.
His play has been vital to a Chiefs’ defense that was nothing short of pitiful last season, with his swagger and attitude transforming KC’s defense into one of the best in the NFL during the second half of the season.
Because of that, he has the Chiefs back in the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years and has himself on the cusp of finishing his long journey back.
“He’s been everything,” defensive end Frank Clark, the Chiefs’ other big defensive addition said Tuesday. “Everything you want in a leader, everything you want in a professional, that’s been Tyrann, for sure. He’s done everything but come to work and give us a shorthand. He comes to work every day and battles. He comes to work every day with the mindset of being the best.
“He plays with that chip and has that chip on his shoulder like I do. Feeling like you’ve done your fair part in this league to get the respect you deserve, but still feeling like guys haven’t given you."
The second Mathieu arrived in Kansas City, it was clear the role he would play in their Super Bowl quest.
“The first day he stepped into the facility you knew he was a leader,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “He was able to take control of the room when he talks. He has that mentality and that competitiveness. I knew that I had a guy on the team that I could trust to lead this team whenever we needed it.”
Mathieu not only has stabilized and transformed the Chiefs' defense, but he’s been an important pillar of the Kansas City community as well, taking part in several charitable activities from Thanksgiving Turkey give outs to Christmas shopping sprees, showing everything he's been through has made him a different person.
Mathieu discarded the Honey Badger nickname when he came into the league, in hopes people would get to know the real Tyrann Mathieu. This season, while leading the Chiefs in pass deflections and interceptions, he took on a new nickname — The Landlord.
No longer a prisoner to the character of the Honey Badger -- although he will utter it from time to time -- Mathieu’s nickname change speaks volumes about the personal evolution he’s undergone since being that lost kid in the coach’s office at McNeese State.
Now 27, Mathieu arrived in Kansas City mature, humbled and prepared to do something he knows his journey has prepared him for: to finish.
“I look at myself right now and I’m 100 percent at peace,” Mathieu said. “I reflect on what I’ve been through but I know I’m strong enough to keep going. I think that’s the blessing. I know that I’m strong enough to finish.”
In order to complete the feel-good story of the NFL season, The Landlord will have to own the field Sunday in Miami. His communication, discipline and instincts will be key to shutting down a 49ers’ offensive attack that has been ruthlessly efficient during their run through the NFC.
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If he can do that, his tale will have ended up exactly where many thought he would when he was terrorizing the SEC in 2011.
But no matter the outcome Sunday, Mathieu will take it all with a perspective that has been shaped by a process few have the heart and desire to struggle through.
“Just keep going right?” Mathieu said when asked about what he would tell his younger self about the journey that ultimately was ahead oh him. “Learn from all your mistakes. Keep your head up. Keep working hard. Keep a smile on your face.”
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. Saturday).
Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.